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Caspian: Arms Race Fears Grow

  • Michael Lelyveld

Caspian countries are warning one another about new military measures as an agreement on dividing resources faces long delays. Our correspondent, Michael Lelyveld, says charges of arms sales are raising suspicions in an atmosphere of rising insecurity.

Boston, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fears of an arms race in the Caspian Sea seem to be growing as the delay in settling borders drags on.

For the second time in a week, Azerbaijani television warned on 1 June that neighboring nations are building up their navies, posing a threat to offshore oil fields.

The latest report by Azerbaijan's ANS television claims that Turkmenistan is preparing to buy 20 speedboats from Ukraine. Half the fleet would consist of 40-ton vessels equipped with large-caliber machine guns, the station said.

The report, which cited no source for its information, said, "The fact that the Caspian states are strengthening their naval forces shows that they are intensifying their struggle for control over oil deposits."

In late May, Azerbaijani television also carried a report on increases in Russian naval power in the Caspian. High-speed boats had been placed at the nearby Russian ports of Makhachkala and Kaspiisk, the station said. Russian ships were reported to be carrying missiles and artillery.

While reports on Russian forces in the Caspian have appeared before, the details of Turkmenistan's intentions may be hard to verify. Recent announcements on its trade with Ukraine have said nothing about arms.

Kyiv already owes Ashgabat over $280 million in gas debts, making any Turkmen payments for Ukrainian goods seem unlikely. ANS also did not say how Ukrainian vessels weighing 40 tons would reach Turkmenistan without cooperation from other countries, like Russia.

While there may be doubts about the reports, there appear to be several causes for the concerns.

First, Azerbaijan has been trying to justify its acceptance of two patrol boats from the United States, which has sparked a reaction from Iran. Last month, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, stressed that the small coast guard cutters are only 16 meters in length, making it hard to install weapons, Azerbaijan's Trend news agency said.

Second, Azerbaijan seems to feel more vulnerable because it has more offshore development than the other Caspian states.

Azerbaijani television station said, "In a situation where Russia, Iran, and Turkmenistan have powerful naval forces, Azerbaijan cannot be satisfied with its two vessels." Baku's recent warming in relations with Russia has apparently done nothing to calm its concerns about its own small Caspian force.

Third, and most important, the lack of a Caspian agreement on drawing borders and dividing resources has allowed security worries to run wild. Baku's long feud with Ashgabat over disputed oil fields has helped to delay a Caspian summit meeting from April until October.

Azerbaijan is not the only country in the region to voice security concerns during this period of uncertainty.

Iran has repeatedly shown unease with the presence of Russian naval power. Tehran has lamented the fact that its treaties of 1921 and 1940 with the Soviet Union made no distinction between civilian and military craft in allowing free passage of ships.

Iran has also cited Russian forces in the Caspian in objecting to division formulas that could allow warships to sail too close to its shores. Recently, Iranian officials have preferred to aim their security warnings at more distant countries, like the United States.

Last month, the Iranian army commander, Brigadier General Mohammad Salimi, said, "Enemies of Muslims should know that Iran's army will not let them carry out their plans on the sea." In the past, such comments have appeared to be veiled messages about Russia, which has ships in the Caspian, while the United States does not.

But the distrust shown by each of the Caspian countries toward each of its neighbors may serve as a reminder of the risks for all. The Caspian countries have many of the problems that have kept the Persian Gulf on edge for decades.

These include large oil revenues and authoritarian governments, the failure to develop diversified economies, and meager cross-border trade. With ethnic and religious tensions, the stage has been set for insecurity and defense spending in an area that has avoided excessive armaments until now.

So far, the suspicions of Caspian countries have kept them from reaching an agreement to protect the interests of all five shoreline states. But as time passes, the lack of a pact seems to be giving the countries even more cause for suspicion, creating even greater insecurity.

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